SUFFERING is a problem in life that comes home to everyone. A child is born blind, deformed or mentally afflicted; and the question comes: Why? The child has done no harm.
A man or woman of fine character and in the prime of life is racked with pain in a hopeless disease that can only end in death. Why him? Why her? These are the people who can least be spared.
Millions in the world are suffering semi-starvation and disease in countries with vast populations and little fertility. Others perish or are made homeless in floods and earthquakes. Why should they suffer?
Pain, torture and death have been imposed on helpless millions by the tyranny of man and the destructiveness of modern war. Countless lives are lost in acts of terrorism, by brutality and hijacking. Accidents there have always been, but the scale of today's disasters and natural calamities is often overwhelming: a passenger aircraft crashes; an oil rig blows up; fire traps hundreds in an underground train. People ask: Why does God allow it?
The questions readily rise to mind and on the surface seem reasonable: yet a candid look at them shows that they carry certain implications. They imply that suffering in human life is inconsistent either with the power or with the love of God: that as a God of love either He has not the power to prevent the suffering, or if He has the power then He has not the will, and is not a God of love. It is assumed that the prevention of suffering as it now affects the apparently innocent is something we should expect from a God of love who is also Almighty. Are these assumptions justified?
Facts of Life
Some facts about life must be taken into account before we try to form a judgement:
Man lives in a universe of cause and effect and the consequences of certain causes are inescapable. Fire burns, water drowns, disease germs destroy. These facts have moral implications. Men live in a universe in which the consequences of what they do are inescapable, and therefore their responsibility for what they do is equally inescapable. Without this burden of 'natural law' man could do as he liked with impunity, and there would be no responsibility. God made the universe this way because He is a moral God who makes men responsible beings with freewill to choose how they will act.
Man's neglect and misuse of his own life has corrupted the stream of human life itself, and left evils which fall on succeeding generations. These, again as part of natural law, may manifest themselves as hereditary weaknesses and tendencies to disease. The very stuff of life may be affected as it is passed on from generation to generation.
The consequences of man's acts are not only directly physical. The social and political evils which they have created throughout history have left a gathering burden on the generations following. People today are caught in a net of the consequences of past history, and even when they try to right one evil, another is brought to bear: "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now" (Romans 8:22).
Should People be Saved from Themselves?
Taking such facts as these into account, it must be asked, What is it we are really doing when we require God to remove suffering? Are we not asking that God should (a) suspend natural law, (b) divert the consequences of heredity, and (c) turn aside the effects of man's inhumanity to man? Have we the right to expect God to save men from the consequences of human acts? Would it be a moral universe if He did?
These questions can only be asked of situations when the hand of man is involved. Earthquakes, tempests, famines and floods are called 'acts of God' because usually there is no other explanation for their occurrence. So if we look beyond human acts to natural disaster, we find that it falls upon all, innocent and guilty alike. As soon as we begin to question the suffering of innocent victims of these disasters another dilemma is raised. Are we saying that the calamities should be selective in their working, searching out only those who deserve to suffer'?
An Evil or a Symptom?
Underlying all the loose thinking on the subject which has been surveyed so far is one basic assumption: it is that suffering is evil in itself. It is this belief that suffering is the essential evil that lies at the root of Buddhism. The Bible view is radically different: suffering is not evil in itself, but a symptom of a deeper evil. The Scriptures portray suffering as a consequence of sin: not necessarily the sin of the individual who suffers, but sin in the history of man and in human society. Its origin is succinctly put by the Apostle Paul:
"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Romans 5:12).
The sentence upon the woman after the disobedience in Eden says:
"I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."
To the man God says:
"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:16,19).
The teaching is simple. With man's disobedience there came a dislocation in the relationship between the Creator and the created; the relation between God and man is out of joint. The first sin brought a fundamental change which affects all with the evils which are common to man. Death is universal: God does not modify it for the particular individual. The Bible teaching is that men are left to their own ways and the working of natural law, though there may be times when natural disaster is divinely directed as a judgement upon man and for the cleansing of the earth. The outstanding example is the flood in the days of Noah.
At the same time it is true that in the Bible, for those who seek to serve God, suffering takes on new meaning; they are in a new relationship to the Creator, and will learn to see tragedy in a new light. What is it?
A Godly Man's Experience
The answer may be seen in the example of Job. Here is a devout man who meets with disaster in the loss of his flocks and herds-the source of his wealth; with terrible bereavement in the loss of all his children at one stroke; and then is stricken with a tormenting disease which separates him from men. Yet he says: "What? Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10). He recognises the important principle that he cannot claim good as a right: it is not for him to decide what God shall do.
The Agonizing Problem
The time comes, however, when the suffering is so unbearable that death seems preferable. In agony and bewilderment he asks, in effect: Why should a man live if it is only to suffer? Can God, who has made man, destroy him like a discarded plaything?
Job's friends argue that there is a direct connection between a man's sin and his suffering and they therefore contend that to suffer so greatly Job must have greatly sinned. Job is convinced of his own integrity: he is human, but he knows that he is not guilty of the sins they try to fasten upon him. Yet he has enough of his friends' philosophy to feel now that he suffers unjustly. Has God chosen him to be set up as a mark to shoot at? Because, compared with others, his sufferings seem wholly disproportionate to any faults he can confess. To him it seems that his affliction can only mean that God has turned against him, and this moral problem adds to his bitterness. The "tents of robbers" prosper: why should the righteous suffer? If God is judging him, is it right that he should be judged by a standard human nature cannot reach?
The friends utterly fail to shake Job's conviction in his own righteousness, and at last they cease to argue. But underlying Job's contention is an ultimate faith in God, in spite of all the questionings, and a belief in God's justice; and so Job reaches out to the hope that in another life, if not now, God as his Redeemer will vindicate him and be on his side. And so he introduces a new element in the argument when he looks beyond the grave to resurrection and reconciliation. That belief, hinted at in Job, is fully declared elsewhere in both the Old and New Testaments, and it gives a new perspective to the problem. Yet it does not in itself explain why men and women should suffer in this life.
God Speaking to Man
When the friends are silenced and Job has made his final speech, the young man Elihu comes into the argument. He shows that Job in his extremity has impugned the righteousness of God, but he also throws a new light on the problem. God speaks to men (a) through revelation, and (b) through suffering. God, by His own means, is communicating with men and women and bringing them to Himself (read Job 33:14-18).
God speaks to men, says Elihu, for their spiritual education, their guidance in life and their preservation from destruction. He "withdraws man from his purpose, and hides pride" from him, leading him away from his own self-assertive course of life, for pride is the source of sin. As to the other means of communication, Elihu says:
"He is chastened also with pain upon his bed, and the multitude of his bones with strong pain: so that his life abhorreth bread, and his soul dainty meat. His flesh is consumed away, that it cannot be seen; and his bones that were not seen stick out. Yea, his soul draweth near unto the grave, and his life to the destroyers" (Job 33:19-22).
The description of suffering perfectly fits Job, and Elihu is saying that even he needs the chastening, reproof, discipline of the Lord-not for the specific sins alleged by his friends, for Elihu does not mention them, but for a more subtle fault. Elihu has already hinted at it, for it is the sin of spiritual pride, and only the experience of suffering can bring it to light so as to convict him of it.
God's Working with Man
Suffering can, therefore, be part of the ways of God's working with men for their own development and to bring them to a knowledge of Himself; and the outcome for Job was a new and intimate knowledge of God. He could say:
"I have heard of thee with the hearing of the ear: But now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6).
This working of God with man must in its nature be individual: only the man who suffers can gain this as a personal experience. The larger problem of suffering remains, and the only answer to be extracted from the Book of Job is that man cannot question the majesty and wisdom of God: He is the Creator and Sustainer of all life, and His works are beyond man's knowledge. It is this answer which is elaborated with such power and beauty by the Voice from the whirlwind in chapters 38-41. Man can only accept that the ways of God are beyond his judgement.
"Does Job serve God for nought?"
While, therefore, the Book of Job offers no simple answer to the problem of suffering, it has been raised to a wider level. Only by loss and suffering could Job know that he did not serve God for the sake of houses, lands, flocks and herds, or even children. He did not even serve for the sake of his own skin, his health and wellbeing. He worshipped God for Himself, and in spite of all the wild words which came from his stress of mind and body he had an ultimate belief in God's righteousness and faithfulness. It was only when stripped of everything that he really knew that God was his only refuge, and in that discovery he was triumphantly vindicated against the slander of the Adversary epitomized by the three friends.
Job's faith in God was put to the test under trial, and by trial it was tempered as steel. It was by his final acceptance of the wisdom of God, and by learning that faith could be developed through suffering, that Job came at last to the fuller knowledge of God.
The conclusions to be drawn from what has been considered so far may be summarised as follows:
Man lives in an ordered universe of cause and effect and must accept its consequences; and since sin entered into human life these must involve suffering. The suffering, however, may not be directly related to the sin of the sufferer but may result from the acts of former generations.
At the same time it is the universe of a God of wisdom and love who can guide and control the suffering for those who seek Him in order to bring them to a deeper knowledge of Him.
A Divine Discipline
It is in the light of this latter conclusion that we may understand a passage in the Letter to the Hebrews based on a saying in the Book of Proverbs:
"And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees" (Hebrews 12:5-12; Proverbs 3:11-12).
Read in its context, the passage expounds itself. Suffering and loss are common to man, but for the children of God they are directed by their Heavenly Father as a spiritual training, and as such are the expression of His love.
Does God Suffer?
One stage more may be reached in the understanding of suffering. It is that God Himself is involved in the suffering of man, for out of His love He gave His own Son to die for them, and allowed him to suffer too. Jesus was wholly innocent, untainted by sin of any kind, yet he voluntarily laid down his life, suffering injustice and cruelty for the sake of his friends:
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved" (John 3:14-17).
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Greater love even God could not have than to give His beloved Son to the suffering of the cross for the redemption of men.
It is true, therefore, to say that even God suffers, and it becomes possible to understand the saying of the prophet concerning God's relation to Israel:
Why Does God not Intervene?
The God of Israel is not a remote, impassive First Cause:
His Holy Spirit can be grieved, He can be moved with yearning compassion. He can love with an everlasting love. All these are Scriptural expressions, and they reveal God as the supreme Personality who can from His holy transcendence enter into the lives of the men and women He has created.
People often ask: Why does God not intervene to stop suffering, to halt war, to prevent disease, etc.? God does, of course, intervene in human affairs; He has shown His power at many times in history. But there is a limit to this intervention: He has allowed man freewill, and He allows man to use that freewill -- for good or ill.
God intervened in the history of His chosen people Israel and gave them special opportunities to worship. Him and be His witnesses. He entrusted them with His revelation and with the promises and prophecies of a coming Messiah.
God Sent His Son
So it was that, nearly 2000 years ago, God intervened in the lives and history of man by giving His Son Christ Jesus to share in human suffering to the uttermost in order to bring about redemption from sin and death. Christ came in the life and nature of man; he shared our experience and endured the temptations from within and the afflictions from without that are the common lot of all mankind:
"It became him . . . to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings . . . In all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted." (Hebrews 2:10-18)
"Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8).
In accepting suffering in obedience to the will of God he raised it to a new plane, and showed it no longer as the greatest evil but as a means to an end: for through suffering, in his perfect obedience to God, he overcame the power of sin in human nature, and so made possible resurrection from the dead to eternal life with the Father. In this he obtained perfection, a tried and tested faith, completeness in obedience, wholeness in the love of God and the service of man -- an example to all his followers.
Perfect through Suffering
"For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed" (1 Peter 2:21-24).
And "having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation" (Hebrews 5:9). He is the author, the source, the cause, of a salvation men cannot attain for themselves, since on account of his sacrifice men and women who come to him for life are by God's grace accepted as members of Christ. And so, as Christ rose the third day, there is spiritual resurrection to new life now for those who are baptized into him, and the hope of physical resurrection and a change to immortality in the day when he returns.
"Partakers of the divine nature"
If men and women were to become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), raised out of sin to a level where they could truly know God, enjoy eternal fellowship with Him and share His incorruptible life, then God alone knew how this was to be achieved consistently with His own majestic holiness. It was the way which required the gift of His Son to die on the cross.
If, then, God suffered, and if, in obedience to the Father, Christ suffered even to death, the whole problem of man's suffering is raised to a new level. Without faith in God, suffering is an evil to be endured. With faith, and the example of the Son of God, suffering may purify and ennoble, and be a means by which God brings the sufferer nearer to Himself. It can be truly a divine education, the chastening of the Lord.
"All things new"
If God's Son suffered, can men expect to escape? But beyond the suffering was resurrection, and beyond resurrection will come the Kingdom of God when Christ will come to reign, taking to himself those who have already committed themselves as his followers.
This time for the kingdom to be set up is very close. But the Lord's own words and many other prophecies make it plain that the coming of Christ will be preceded by great tribulation for the world, and no doubt also for his disciples:
"For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened" (Matthew 24:21,22).
But when the Lord Jesus Christ appears, he will cleanse the earth of all evil, put down all sin and selfishness, eliminate disease-and ultimately death. He will reign for God and remove suffering. Then shall be fulfilled the words heard by the apostle John on Patmos:
"And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new" (Revelation 21:3-5).
For those who answer the call of God's love, the way of suffering may be the way of life, and that is the ultimate purpose of the existence of suffering in the world. The call is still going out; there is still opportunity for all who are looking for hope beyond this present evil world, to find it in the 'good news' of the Gospel.
 “For we realize that all the human creation groans together in painful moans until the present.” (Ro 8:22 MHM)
 “Just so, the sin of one human entered the world of humankind, and by this sin, death. And, so, the death passed through every human and because of that everyone sins.” (Ro 5:12 MHM)
 “To the woman he said, Great will be your pain in childbirth; in sorrow will your children come to birth; still your desire will be for your husband, but he will be your master.” (Ge 3:16 BBE)
“With the hard work of your hands you will get your bread till you go back to the earth from which you were taken: for dust you are and to the dust you will go back.” (Ge 3:19 BBE)
 “And he said to her, You are talking like one of the foolish women. If we take the good God sends us, are we not to take the evil when it comes? In all this Job kept his lips from sin.” (Job 2:10 BBE)
 “14 ¶ For God gives his word in one way, even in two, and man is not conscious of it: 15 In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep comes on men, while they take their rest on their beds; 16 Then he makes his secrets clear to men, so that they are full of fear at what they see; 17 In order that man may be turned from his evil works, and that pride may be taken away from him; 18 To keep back his soul from the underworld, and his life from destruction.” (Job 33:14-18 BBE)
 “19 ¶ Pain is sent on him as a punishment, while he is on his bed; there is no end to the trouble in his bones; 20 He has no desire for food, and his soul is turned away from delicate meat; 21 His flesh is so wasted away, that it may not be seen, and his bones. … 22 And his soul comes near to the underworld, and his life to the angels of death.” (Job 33:19-22 BBE)
 “5 Word of you had come to my ears, but now my eye has seen you. 6 For this cause I give witness that what I said is false, and in sorrow I take my seat in the dust.” (Job 42:5-6 BBE)
 “5 And you have not kept in mind the word which says to you as to sons, My son, do not make little of the Lord’s punishment, and do not give up hope when you are judged by him; 6 For the Lord sends punishment on his loved ones; everyone whom he takes as his son has experience of his rod. 7 It is for your training that you undergo these things; God is acting to you as a father does to his sons; for what son does not have punishment from his father? 8 But if you have not that punishment of which we all have our part, then you are not true sons, but children of shame. 9 And again, if the fathers of our flesh gave us punishment and had our respect, how much more will we be under the authority of the Father of spirits, and have life? 10 For they truly gave us punishment for a short time, as it seemed good to them; but he does it for our profit, so that we may become holy as he is. 11 At the time all punishment seems to be pain and not joy: but after, those who have been trained by it get from it the peace–giving fruit of righteousness. 12 For this cause let the hands which are hanging down be lifted up, and let the feeble knees be made strong,” (Heb 12:5-12 BBE)
“11 My son, do not make your heart hard against the Lord’s teaching; do not be made angry by his training: 12 For to those who are dear to him the Lord says sharp words, and makes the son in whom he has delight undergo pain.” (Pr 3:11-12 BBE)
 “14 As the snake was lifted up by Moses in the waste land, even so it is necessary for the Son of man to be lifted up: 15 So that whoever has faith may have in him eternal life. 16 For God had such love for the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever has faith in him may not come to destruction but have eternal life. 17 God did not send his Son into the world to be judge of the world; he sent him so that the world might have salvation through him.” (Joh 3:14-17 BBE)
 “It was not sent one or angel, but he himself who was their saviour: in his love and in his pity he took up their cause, and he took them in his arms, caring for them all through the years.” (Isa 63:9 BBE)
 “Then the Lord gave them judges, as their saviours from the hands of those who were cruel to them.” (Jud 2:16 BBE)
 “10 ¶ Because it was right for him, for whom and through whom all things have being, in guiding his sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation complete through pain. 11 For he who makes holy and those who are made holy are all of one family; and for this reason it is no shame for him to give them the name of brothers, 12 Saying, I will give the knowledge of your name to my brothers, I will make a song of praise to you before the church. 13 And again he says, I will put my faith in him. And again, See, I am here, and the children which God has given to me. 14 ¶ And because the children are flesh and blood, he took a body himself and became like them; so that by his death he might put an end to him who had the power of death, that is to say, the Evil One; 15 And let those who all their lives were in chains because of their fear of death, go free. 16 For, truly, he does not take on the life of angels, but that of the seed of Abraham. 17 Because of this it was necessary for him to be made like his brothers in every way, so that he might be a high priest full of mercy and keeping faith in everything to do with God, making offerings for the sins of the people. 18 For having been put to the test himself, he is able to give help to others when they are tested.” (Heb 2:10-18 BBE)
 “And though he was a Son, through the pain which he underwent, the knowledge came to him of what it was to be under God’s orders;” (Heb 5:8 BBE)
 “21 This is God’s purpose for you: because Jesus himself underwent punishment for you, giving you an example, so that you might go in his footsteps: 22 Who did no evil, and there was no deceit in his mouth: 23 To sharp words he gave no sharp answer; when he was undergoing pain, no angry word came from his lips; but he put himself into the hands of the judge of righteousness: 24 He took our sins on himself, giving his body to be nailed on the tree, so that we, being dead to sin, might have a new life in righteousness, and by his wounds we have been made well.” (1Pe 2:21-24 BBE)
 “And when he had been made complete, he became the giver of eternal salvation to all those who are under his orders;” (Heb 5:9 BBE)
 “And through this he has given us the hope of great rewards highly to be valued; so that by them we might have our part in God’s being, and be made free from the destruction which is in the world through the desires of the flesh.” (2Pe 1:4 BBE)
 “21 Because in those days there will be great sorrow, such as there has not been from the start of the world till now, or ever will be. 22 And if those days had not been made short there would have been no salvation for any, but because of the saints those days will be made short.” (Mt 24:21-22 BBE)
 “3 And there came to my ears a great voice out of the high seat, saying, See, the Tent of God is with men, and he will make his living–place with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God. 4 And he will put an end to all their weeping; and there will be no more death, or sorrow, or crying, or pain; for the first things have come to an end. 5 And he who is seated on the high seat said, See, I make all things new. And he said, Put it in the book; for these words are certain and true.” (Re 21:3-5 BBE)